Yoji Yamada’s “The Twilight Samurai” – Brief Analysis

Twilight of the Samurai

            Yoji Yamada’s 2002 film “The Twilight Samurai” describes a set of dramatic events in the life of a low-class samurai in 1860s Japan, shortly before the Meiji Restoration seals the fate of the order. The film is based on a short story by Shugei Fujisawa.[1] It offers numerous insights into the changing nature of samurai life in the late Tokugawa Shogunate period. It is no longer a time when one can say that “honor to name and family counted for more than life.”[2] As events unfold, we see the film as an allegory for the demise of the Shogunate and the apparent end of warrior rule in Japan.

Iguchi Seibei is a samurai at the lowest level in a clan where rigid class ranks prevail. Social and political position is “locked at both ends.”[3] Yet Seibei’s world is on the verge of great change. Ten years earlier, Admiral Perry had forced the Shogunate to open trade with the United States, humiliating the samurai class and hastening modernization.[4] After centuries of peace, samurai really aren’t warriors any longer.[5] The “every man for himself” world of earlier centuries has been transformed and a new social structure has developed. Loyalty has moved from the “personal” to the “public.”[6] Yamaga Soko enunciated the principles of the old samurai code. Among these is the belief that the samurai should put devotion to moral principle ahead of personal gain.[7] This notion will challenge Seibei throughout the film. He is a poor man in a society that is increasingly unstable. Conscript riflemen are practicing to take over the traditional role of the samurai. Loyalty cannot overcome economic necessity. It is already possible to see samurai desert en masse from a han after a stipend reduction.[8] Nevertheless, Seibei will continue to practice several key tenets of the samurai code. In The Story of Arai’s Father, Blomberg argues that the samurai must “practice endurance of what seems particularly hard to endure.”[9] Seibei is an expert at such behavior.

Seibei’s official role is that of a clerk-accountant in the clan storehouse. This post illustrates that the Samurai have become the bureaucrats of their society.[10] They are kept busy making inventories of dried fish, not planning the next battle. Failure to modernize means that it is a time of famine. The bodies of dead children float down the river. But while the Shogunate culture has fossilized, Seibei’s attitudes anticipate the modern world. He believes that his daughters should be educated. He is willing to place practical considerations ahead of many feudal concepts of class honor.

When his wife dies of consumption, Seibei is pressed by his in-laws into giving her an expensive funeral. His stipend is not a salary. It is set by the clan lord and is fixed while prices fluctuate with supply and demand.[11] Natural inflation inexorably reduces the lot of low-class samurai. Seibei’s meager rank means that this funeral debt is one from which he cannot recover. He must perform non-samurai tasks in order to survive. Far from being indignant at this affront to his honor, Seibei accepts his fate without complaint. Samurai behaviors have changed dramatically since Yamaga Soko wrote “…the samurai eats food without growing it, uses utensils without manufacturing them, and profits without buying or selling.”[12] Seibei does all these things. In Kurosawa’s film “Seven Samurai,” the hungry protagonists cannot quite give up their class honor and work the fields. To supplement his 50-koku stipend, Seibei farms his own yard. Regardless, he still retains threads of the concepts of honor that developed during the long Tokugawa Peace.[13] These concepts, the Bushido Code, arose when peacetime samurai were questioning “Who Am I?”[14] Despite all that has befallen him, Seibei does not believe his honor has been compromised. He still has a surname, unlike his rough servant. “Petty I may be,” he says, ”but I’m still a samurai.”.

Regardless of his conflicted feelings about samurai honor, Seibei cannot afford to mend his kimono or shave properly. He takes on piece-work building insect cages at night. He is forced to beg the merchant’s agent for “a little more.” Merchants, officially among the lowest of classes, have become more essential and powerful as Japan begins to modernize.[15] They are depicted in the film as having violated the social pecking order by giving Seibei minimal respect. This is yet another sign of how far the samurai have declined from their exalted warrior status.

Events come to a minor climax when Seibei disgraces himself publically by appearing before the clan lord in a ripped kimono. In earlier times he might have been ordered to commit seppuku, but in this age even his superiors do not feel this is necessary. Seibei has the heart of a clerk. In an earlier Japan the only refuge for a man of bushi stock who did not wish to lead the life of an active warrior – even in pretense – was to take holy orders.[16] Seibei has not done this and he does not seem overly bothered by the implicatoins of his choice. His daughters recite “… to carry out duty faithfully,” but when the time comes, Seibei will try to avoid unreasonable clan orders if he can. He finds the greatest happiness in watching his children grow and in fantacising about marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Tomoe. Although he holds many modern beliefs, Seibei is a “twilight” samurai because he is fading into insignificance.  He cannot marry the woman he loves because it would disgrace her to be brought into his twilight existence. (Interestingly, Tomoe is also portrayed as “liberated” from the behavior codes required of samurai women).

We learn that Seibei is skilled with the wakizashi short sword and has even served as a fencing instructor. We also have the impression that he has never killed anyone. When he is pressed into a duel with Tomoe’s ex-husband, we watch him practicing in his yard. Proficiency in training is intended to bring both proficiency in combat and spiritual enlightenment,[17] but we can see that Seibei is uneasy. He is clearly out of practice from long years of peace. He has even sold his katana long sword. During the Tokugawa Peace it was not uncommon for samurai to pawn their swordblades, replacing them with pieces of bamboo to hold the fittings and scabbard together.[18] Nevertheless, Seibei subdues the ex-husband with a wooden practice sword. Dueling has been outlawed by Seibei’s clan. Even then we are certain that he would have used the stick anyway. He lacks a “killer instinct.” Further, Seibei shows remarkable coolness throughout the duel. He is the model of samurai composure. It is as if he is the Elder cat in Neko no Myojutsu.[19]

The film’s climax develops when Seibei’s clan experiences a succession dispute upon the untilmely death of its lord. The chief retainer orders Seibei to kill Yogo, a master swordsman of the clan who is refusing to commit seppuku. Swordsman Yogo is put in this position because he is indirectly associated with an unsuccesful claimant to the succession.  Seppuku was regarded as “an honorable way out of an impossible situation.”[20] Samurai from an earlier century might commit mass seppuku over a matter of honor, as in the Naganori incident of 1702.[21] By 1863, attitudes have changed. Seibei tries everything to avoid the assignment. The true bushi, according to the Hagakure, “should consentrate on one objective only, i.e. his loyal service to his lord.”[22] Seibei does not fully embrace this attitude. “Fighting requires disregard for one’s life,” he says, knowing that he cannot fake enthusiasm. He finally agrees to take on what is probably a suicide mission. His acquiescence to the task is not driven by the samurai code, however, but by the threat that he will be expelled from the clan. Expulsion would mean death to his entire family.

Several questions are raised by the film’s narrative at this point. As he prepares to face Yogo, Seibei proposes to Tomoe. She hesitates briefly and then tells him that she is already engaged. Later in the film we will learn that they have married. We conclude that she is not engaged after all. By misleading Seibei, Tomoe is also reflecting samurai values. She deflates his expectation of marriage and happiness because a warrior must be divorsed from any conscious reasons to live. He must be fully prepared for death.[23] The viewer may also wonder why the clan does not simply send a much larger force and overwhelm the rebellious Yogo. The answer here also lies in samurai honor. According to the Honcho Bugei Shoden, “It is hardly felicitous for two men to kill one, and it would not do to have such a fact become publically known.”[24]

Seibei has been selected because his short sword style might give him an advantage when fighting indoors. There are many different “schools” of sword fighting in 19th century Japan. They have different techniques, but tend to stress common ideas of personal development (budo).[25] Armed with the dubious advantage of his “school”, Seibei steps over the body of another clansman and enters the swordsman’s home. The atmosphere inside is chaotic. The Bushido Shoshinsu admonishes us that “…if you lose composure on the brink of death and die in an unseamly manner, your previous good conduct will all be in vain.”[26] Yogo has lost composure. He munches on his daughter’s ashes; intends to run away rather than fight; drinks sake when facing combat. Yogo tells Seibei “The day of the samurai is done” and gives Seibei the opportunity to strike him from behind. Treachery is excused in the samurai code. This would be tolerated,[27] but Seibei cannot do it. His attitudes are too modern. He feels sympathy for Yogo and will not strike unless the other man moves first.

As they sit discussing the tragedy of samurai life, Seibei reveals that he has sold his katana. The master swordsman immediately looks at his opponent in a new way. A samurai should never give up his sword. To do so – as in the film “Seppuku” – is a dishonor not only to Seibei, but also to the master swordsman. “You were going to kill me with a trick – with a bamboo sword?” the man asks. “You mock me.” Despite his resolve to run, the swordsman cannot tolerate this affront. He attacks Seibei and is killed. Yogo’s death is not from a single slashing blow as shown in popular action films. Instead, he slowly bleeds to death from numerous cuts of Seibei’s katana, just as samurai rule dies slowly from accumulated insignificance in a modern world. One film critic has pointed out that Yogo referes to Seibei as “an errand boy,” using the same wording that the Kurtz character does in Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” This earlier film was also about a time when a warrior culture was undergoing dramatic change. The assasination of the Kurtz character is echoed in Yogo’s death. The change in warrior ethic depicted in Coppola’s film is duplicated in Yamada’s.

“An honorable samurai is one who wins battles.”[28] Seibei’s standing in the clan will have improved somewhat. We assume that having performed his mission, he is awarded a larger stipend. Although it won’t make him wealthy, it will permit him to marry Tomoe and live more comfortably with his daughters. His happiness is brief. History intervenes a few years later when Seibei’s clan backs the unsuccesful Shogunate resistence during the Meiji Restoration. Seibei is killed in battle by another symbol of moderization, the gun. This conflict — the Boshin War – is also the “twilight” of the samurai way of life. Thus the title of the film carries a double meaning. Japan’s social structure has proven incapable of responding to the modern world. The samurai will be disarmed and conscript commoners will be armed for the imperial cause.[29]

In the film’s final scene, we hear a train whistle in the distance as Seibei’s grown daughter lights a modern match to honor her parents. She muses “My father had no desire to rise in the world.” The modern age anticipated by Seibei and Tomoe has arrived. Feudal domains are replaced by prefectures in 1871, eliminating clan lords.[30] The wearing of swords is prohibited in 1876 and the samurai class is irrevocably abolished.[31] Thereafter real samurai exist only in the twilight of our memory.

 

Endnotes

[1] Shuhei Fujisawa. The Bamboo Sword and Other Samurai Tales. Translated by Gavin Frew. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2005.

[2] Jansen, Marius. Warrior Rule in Japan. New York: Cambridge Press, 1995.

[3] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes for HIST4600, 2008

[4] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes for HIST4600, 2008

[5] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes for HIST4600, 2008

[6] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes for HIST4600, 2008

[7] Yamaga Soko. Yamada Soko and the Origins of Bushido.

[8] Jansen, Marius. Warrior Rule in Japan. New York: Cambridge Press, 1995.

[9] Blomberg, Catharina. The Heart of the Warrior. Sandgate: Japan Library, 1994.

[10] Yamaga Soko. Yamada Soko and the Origins of Bushido.

[11] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes for HIST4600, 2008

[12] Yamaga Soko. Yamada Soko and the Origins of Bushido.

[13] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes for HIST4600, 2008

[14] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes for HIST4600, 2008

[15] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes for HIST4600, 2008

[16] Blomberg, Catharina. The Heart of the Warrior. Sandgate: Japan Library, 1994.

[17] Friday, Karl. The Cat’s Eerie Skill. A Translation of Issai Chozan’s “Neko no Myojutsu”.

[18] Turnbull, Stephen. The Lone Samurai and the Martial Arts. London: Artillery House, 1990.

[19] Friday, Karl. The Cat’s Eerie Skill. A Translation of Issai Chozan’s “Neko no Myojutsu”

[20] Blomberg, Catharina. The Heart of the Warrior. Sandgate: Japan Library, 1994.

[21] Hiroaki Sato. The Forty-Seven Samurai: An Eyewitness Account, With Arguments.

[22] Blomberg, Catharina. The Heart of the Warrior. Sandgate: Japan Library, 1994.

[23] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes for HIST4600, 2008

[24] Hinatsu: “Honcho Bugei Shoden”, in The Samurai Tradition, Volume 2, edited by Stephen Turnbull. Surrey: The Japan Library, 2000

[25] Friday, Karl. Off the Warpath: Military Science & Budo in the Evolution of Ryuha Bugei.

[26] Cleary, Thomas. Code of the Samurai: A Modern Translation of the Bushido Shoshinsu. Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1999

[27] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes for HIST4600, 2008

[28] Friday, Karl. Lecture Notes for HIST4600, 2008

[29] Jansen, Marius. Warrior Rule in Japan. New York: Cambridge Press, 1995.

[30] Mehl, Margaret. History and the State in Nineteenth-Century Japan. London: Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1998

[31] Blomberg, Catharina. The Heart of the Warrior. Sandgate: Japan Library, 1994.